Ranking: #66/111

Director: Yasujiro Ozu (Japan)    

Genre: Social Drama

Although I don’t think Tokyo Story is anywhere near the greatest film of all time, as is sometimes proposed, it is a richly nuanced social drama which has a subtle, but unforgettable, impact on the viewer. It’s one of the most evocative films about the generation gap in cinema. It is typical of Ozu’s work to explore gender and inter-generational conflicts within the extended family, but this portrait of an uncaring modern Japan is the saddest film in his whole canon. What amazing studies of family life are contained in the treasure-chest of his work! And what a wealth of human insight he has poured into his oeuvre!

The story concerns an elderly couple in their late 60s who travel to Tokyo to visit their adult offspring. What is masterful is the slow-paced accumulation of emotional tension that gradually comes to the surface once they get there.  Bit by bit, the distance between the visiting parents and their son and daughter widens. Soon, the couple start to feel they’re not really wanted around their busy, self-absorbed son and daughter and their families. They decide to send the old parents to the Atami hot springs resort to get them out of the way. They have become a cost burden and are taking up too much valuable time. In the city, time is money! The trip to the spa is the loneliest part of their trip and the long shot of them alone on the promenade wall overlooking the sea is an iconic image in the history of cinema. It is too noisy at the resort for the old couple and they conclude that “this place is meant for the younger generation”. They simply don’t fit into the prevailing individualistic modern Japanese culture.

In an intelligent irony in the screenplay, their daughter-in-law turns out to be the kindest and most considerate of the younger generation, treating them with the respect and love they deep-down crave, but don’t get from their son and daughter.

As always, Ozu’s deft camerawork captures the textures of daily life beautifully, as well as the life of the city in the background. There is an intimation that life is purer and more human out in the country, far from the rat race of the city.

Ozu was a classical filmmaker and everything always fits, Zen-like, into an overall balanced portrait in his films. The emotions of the characters are restrained, so there is no possibility of melodrama or sentimentality. The expression of emotion is controlled. Yet, the tenderness of the story-telling shines through.

Respected French film theoretician and critic, André Bazin, once explained how difficult it is for a filmmaker to achieve a distinctive cinematic style: “Style is a quality less common in cinema than in other arts for it is…the most intimate expression of the creator’s personality…A collective work can have ‘some’ style, but it is virtually impossible for the primary filmmaker to successfully impose himself on the entire team such that the work achieves ‘a’ style as personalized as in more individualized arts.” (Bazin, A, André Bazin on Adaptation: Cinema’s Literary Imagination, p. 63) This inherent difficulty for filmmakers makes it all the more impressive that Ozu succeeded in developing a unique film style which is admired around the world to this day.

In Tokyo Story, the dilemma the old couple face in the city is turned into a universal critique of post-war urban Japan, which Ozu believed had lost its traditional values. Zen harmony no longer seemed to exist in its rapidly Westernising society. It’s only later in the film, at the memorial service for the old mother who dies upon her return home, following the stressful trip to Tokyo, that we see evidence of the ancient cultural influence of Japanese Buddhism. The implication is that she took too much emotional and physical strain in Tokyo on the fateful visit to visit her children.